- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 11, 2017

LOS ANGELES (AP) - From Lonzo Ball’s first day in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey this summer, Magic Johnson proclaimed the teenage point guard to be the key to the 16-time NBA champion franchise’s return to title-winning glory.

Magic then doubled down, saying that he expects Ball’s retired number to hang next to his own at Staples Center someday.

If Ball is feeling any pressure from his new boss’ extraordinary public expectations, he isn’t showing it as he prepares to begin his first regular season with the Lakers next week.

“I’ve been in this situation my whole life, so I don’t see it as anything different,” Ball said. “I look at it all the same. It’s just basketball. Playing a game I love. You get used to it. The media picks up and the attention gets bigger, but it’s the same.”

It’s too soon to know whether Ball can be as good as Magic thinks he is. Lakers fans will start to find out this month when their team begins the next step in its attempted return to championship form after the worst four-year stretch in franchise history.

“We have a very young team, but everybody has been together and working all summer,” Ball said. “It gave us a jump-start on the season. We know we have a lot of work to do to win a championship, so we needed to get started.”

Ball’s playmaking skill is undeniably impressive, as is his maturity: He speaks with a presence belying his youth, and his teammates already look to him as a leader. While Ball has been slowed by a sprained ankle during the preseason, his importance to coach Luke Walton’s team is undeniable before he has even made his regular-season debut.

“We’re going to look to him for a lot of things that we do this season, that’s no secret,” Walton said. “The way he runs a team and the way he gets guys to rally behind him, we’re going to need all of that if we’re going to grow into what we want to be.”

The Lakers want to be a playoff team again after finishing 26-56 last season and extending their four-year absence from the playoffs - the longest stretch in team history. With three new starters and a significant overhaul of the bench, Walton has more talent to work with this season, and optimism is high - but even Magic isn’t overdoing his preseason predictions.

“I’m a realist. The West is awfully tough, and we’ve got a lot of babies that have got to grow up real fast,” Magic said. “I think this team has the talent to contend for a playoff spot, but if we don’t, it’s not going to stop us from having a good season. All I want us to do is have a good season where free agents look and say, ‘Oh man, I can see myself in that lineup and with that team, and we can step up to another level.’”

Here are some things to watch with the Lakers this season:

NEW GUYS: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope joined the Lakers on a one-year deal as a free agent. Brook Lopez arrived via trade in the final year of his contract. The veterans have ample motivation to play for their futures, and they fill significant roles for the Lakers: Caldwell-Pope as a tone-setting defender with wing scoring capability, and Lopez as a mobile big man with a 3-point shooting touch. Both players appear to fit splendidly into Walton’s system - but so did Luol Deng, who is back after a disappointing first year under Walton, and D’Angelo Russell, who was shipped off to Brooklyn.

THE BIGGER MAN: It’s unclear whether Brandon Ingram actually grew 2 inches to 6-foot-11 over the summer, since the Lakers aren’t publicly saying whether the rumors are true. The rangy forward did add significant muscle mass to his upper body in the offseason, and he appears to be well-equipped to shoulder a bigger load after a promising rookie year. The Lakers still hope Ingram will grow into the Kevin Durant-style scorer suggested by his frame and game.

TIME TO SHINE: Julius Randle has shown flashes of promise during his two full seasons with the Lakers, but not consistent game-changing ability as a power forward. Randle seems unlikely to get a contract extension before the deadline next week, and he knows his future in LA could be tenuous, given Magic’s desire to add two big-ticket free agents next summer - particularly LeBron James, who likely would put Randle out of a job if he joined the Lakers. Randle brings a physical edge that the Lakers sometimes lack, and Walton likes his aggressive attitude.

KUZMA’S CHANCE: Ball already feels comfortable playing alongside Kyle Kuzma, his fellow draft pick. A relatively unsung prospect out of Utah, Kuzma caught the NBA’s attention with a standout performance in the Vegas summer league, and he continued to impress in the preseason. Kuzma’s athleticism and determination appear to fit in perfectly with the Lakers‘ desired style.

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More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

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